Saturday, May 16, 2015

CRAIG EDWARD KELSO, Cody Wilson and Defense Distributed Started a War for Your Mind

The first time I encountered intentionally seditious literature I had to be around 14 years old. 

Friends introduced me to a hippy head shop, The Black, in a San Diego beach community known as Ocean Beach (OB). OB was my home. It nourished me with little leagues, boogie boarding, girls in bikinis, year-round outdoor sports, and the fine art of doing things a tad different.

My mother, an otherwise wonderful person, was swamped with two and sometimes three menial jobs. She wasn’t home a lot of the time, and so I was left to find my own way in the single motherhood brave new world of the late 1970s and throughout most of the 1980s.

The Black housed all I would need to get started on a magical journey into forbidden topics.

The hippy shop had everything: bongs, pewter jewelry, bongs, pipes, bongs, pipes, posters, books, books about bongs and pipes, posters, bongs and pipes, concert t-shirts, bongs and pipes, guitars, clothes, bongs, pipes, and more books.

The Black’s public address speakers usually blared classic rock of some kind or another, but every once in a while, punk would sneak in. I could count on The Black to get me out of the sun on a hot, hot day, and they wouldn’t mind a stupid kid with his boogie board, no shirt or shoes, wet with Pacific Ocean spray and salt, wandering its aisles, making teenaged footmarks.

By then, The Anarchist Cookbook was something of an international phenomenon. It was pretty much what it advertised, mixing various illegal activities and the information about how to either assemble them or acquire them.  Nothing about me was even vaguely anarchistic nor interested in hurting anyone or heading in a direction that might include narcotics. I liked the cover. And when I brought to the counter, along with a bunch of crumpled up bills, I also liked the look on the clerk’s face.  

You sure you want this kid?, he half-asked as he unfurled my money and slipped me the change.

The clerk went on to explain how The Anarchist Cookbook was banned in a lot of states, was basically kept from public libraries, and was often legislated against all over the world.

Good enough for me.

I rode home with the boogie board clanking onto my now-dry and still bare back ... the book under my arm. Once inside, I placed the book on my bed and jumped into the shower.

Mom peaked in on me during her ship-in-the-night pass from one job to another. She spoke to me as I showered, asking about my day and what plans I was making for the evening, emphasizing homework instead of Monday Night Football. She happened to wander into my room, catching sight of The Anarchist Cookbook, yet cracked, in all its glory.

Craig Edward Kelso! What is this! she shouted. Since I hadn’t time to read it, I honestly didn’t know what it was. I just liked the cover.

I toweled off, and I enviously found mom flipping pages. I could see some interesting schematics and images, but she closed it before I could really pour over the materials. As was to be my lifelong habit, the book's receipt perched about midway through, inching out of the top. 

Mom seized it, waving and demanding I return the offending material for what I paid. This isn’t appropriate reading, Craig, she admonished.

I returned the book, but the lesson stuck.

After high school, the zine revolution was in full effect. Homespun vanity press was everywhere, and one glossier contribution was Answer Me! 

It contained vile and awful articles on self-hatred and a kind of popular everyman racism, but it spoke to my growing interest in things I should not read nor possess. I was more or less a legal adult at that point, so I gobbled up editions as soon as they became available. 

I sometimes made them coffee table selections, often to the mom-like horror of guests.

When friends grabbed at Answer Me!, they were intellectually fought with. They were hectored. They were cajoled. In the comfort of my little space, they could guiltily pleasure in reading forbidden ideas and thoughts. And what they could never deny is that Answer Me! was well-written.  

It was a purely philosophical experiment, and very political. Though almost none of Answer Me! content really held much value for me, it’s existence for sure did. It cemented my feeling about intellectual lives being something intensely personal, and someone, a cleric or censor or government official, getting in-between me and my ingesting of reading material really fucking roiled my blood.

At roughly the same intellectual moment, Phil Zimmermann came rushing into my life. 

Peacenet members were shoving Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) encryption onto every newsgroup imaginable. I tried to understand the basic premise of PGP, but since my access to computers was rather limited I mostly read what others had to say about its potential.

Zimmermann was soon charged by Customs for violating various munition laws due to the perceived strength of sending messages the government might not be able to read. 


The government basically accused Phil of exporting digital bullets of a sort. It was wildly overreaching, even for government law enforcement hawks.

I re-upped on trying to follow the story and to better grasp what PGP promised or threatened. It was clear Zimmermann was simply publishing a mathematical language, and, it also seemed, he wasn’t really publishing anything – we were. 

Everyone was ... by virtue of sharing the information. Were we ALL munitions dealers? 

This was something new. The ideas were long out of Zimmerman’s control, and the government knew it, but the feds wanted to send a chill down the spine of anyone dumb enough to attempt similar stunts. 

Zimmerman was tied up in courts and legal limbo for almost a third of decade.

The government case faded, and Zimmerman and cryptography and cypherpunks created a whole new world. In a sense, they'd stumbled upon the beginnings of peer-to-peer computing, a way to share files without a middleman, without a gatekeeper. 

Information, almost like water, wants to get out. That's its function. Get out. Jump from brain to brain. 

About two decades later, a Texas law school student published blueprints for a lower plastic receiver, the money part of what most of us commonly understand to be a gun.

He did so on his newly-formed company website, Defense Distributed (DD). Cody Wilson (DD's public face) and a few cohorts unveiled DD's website in the Summer of 2012, after having crowd funded a project (another step child of the cypherpunk movement) to take the growing Maker Bot idea of 3D printing into a whole new direction.

The lower plastic receiver would, in effect, be undetectable to most machines not looking for plastics. It could be printed everywhere. Without a license. No regulation. 

And what was it Cody Wilson did? 

He very simply shared information in digital form, publishing the blueprint files (files that could be, in turn, employed with another's home 3D printing device). 

Wilson was served by the State Department with a request to take down his files. He complied, and waited for further guidance. 

None came, and so just a few days ago, Cody Wilson and Defense Distributed teamed with high powered attorneys from The Second Amendment Foundation to launch what appears to be a ground-breaking lawsuit. A few sites have published the filing, and the easiest to read is the Washington Post's (CLICK HERE for the pdf). 

The suit is interesting because it attempts to use the sizable First Amendment speech victories of the last few decades to buttress the idea Wilson's move to exercise his political voice was squashed by the government. 

But then the suit moves to a slightly more obvious claim, that of the Second Amendment right to arms. If we're unable to freely design arms to defend ourselves, what good is the Second Amendment anyway? If it's left to government approved manufacturers to determine the parameters of our right to self defense, then is it really much of a right at all? 

The suit continues with standard appeals to due process and all the rest. 

I cannot wait to hear this argued, and hopefully it lands in the Supreme Court, but something tells me this isn't going to get far. 

It'll be rejected, most likely, on basic grounds of munition manufacturing and applying those standards to digital files. The speech argument will also probably be scrapped due to 'fire in a crowded theater' type nonsense. 

What's clear is that we're in a new and wonderful time period when technology is quickly outpacing the government's capacity to censor what we learn, what we consume. The grand experiment of humanity seems to be taking ideas and molding them to fit our times and culture and needs.

None of that can be done without Cody Wilson's of the world. We're worse off when Answer ME! is forbidden. We're at a grave disadvantage when thinkers, when tinkerers, builders are cut off from interacting with the public. 

You are.

You're worse when prohibitions are set in place. You're forbidden from the chance to make your own decision, and that's only going to make you a weaker and dumber person. 

And I mean it.

Craig Edward Kelso is the author of Anarcho-Capitalism (2014), a primer on the philosophy of peaceful, stateless cooperation. His curriculum vitae include a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from San Diego State University, and a Post-BaccalaureateSECONDARY EDUCATION credential in both Social Science and English Language Arts. Kelso taught for nearly a decade in the American public school system, and was voted by colleagues Teacher of the Year, twice in his short tenure, earning numerous accolades from chambers of commerce, mayors, state assembly persons, governors, congresspersons, senators, and even Wal-Mart. Currently he struggles to earn an opportunity to be employed, working as a laborer, dishwasher. He is deliriously happily married to Myra Kelso, living in Southern California with their adorable children.

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